by ARI L. GOLDMAN
M ore than a century ago, the leaders of Orthodox Jewry in New York feared that they were growing too fast, too haphazardly, and in too many directions. What they needed, they decided, was a chief rabbi, one who would set rigorous community standards and fight the assimilation and the anti-Semitism that they faced in America.
The rabbi they chose was a great Torah scholar and compelling orator from Lithuania named Rabbi Jacob Joseph. After a huge fund-raising effort among Orthodox congregations, the dream came true: Rabbi Joseph arrived in New York in 1888 and was installed as the city’s first Chief Rabbi at the Beth HaMedrash HaGadol, a congregation on New York’s Lower East Side, the neighborhood that was then the center of the city’s Jewish life.
In the years that followed, however, Joseph met with one frustration after another: his efforts to regulate the sale of kosher meat were rebuffed, his rabbinic edicts were ignored, and even his sermons were mocked (his English was terrible). In the words of Jonathan D. Sarna, the preeminent historian of American Jewry, Chief Rabbi Joseph proved to be “an utter failure.” There is no better proof of this than the fact that he was not only the first, but the last chief rabbi of New York.
Joseph is certainly a quixotic and colorful figure in American Jewish history. Sarna devotes four pages to him in his book, American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press, 2004). Joseph’s name still graces a Jewish day school, the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which was once on the Lower East Side, and now operates with 1,200 students at campuses on Staten Island and New Jersey. But another link to Rabbi Joseph has now been lost. The Beth HaMedrash HaGadol Synagogue, where he once presided, was destroyed by fire earlier this year.
On Sunday, May 14, 2017 a fire swept through the synagogue, a Gothic revival building at 60-64 Norfolk Street. Like several other synagogues in the neighborhood, this one was built as a church and then converted for a new use. It has been used as a synagogue since 1885, although it fell into disrepair and has not been in use for several years. No persons or Torah scrolls were damaged in the blaze, which effectively destroyed the building, a New York City Landmark. Police charged a 14-year-old boy with setting the fire.
Rabbi Yonah Landau, the author of a book about Joseph called The Rav Hakolel and His Generation (2011), said that Rabbi Joseph lived nearby on Henry Street and most often preached and prayed at the Beth HaMedrash synagogue. “He was responsible for more than 20 shuls,” Rabbi Landau said, “but this was the one he frequented.”
In his book, which was originally written in Yiddish and just recently translated into English, Landau describes the Beth HaMedrash as “the largest, most flourishing congregation in New York, and possibly all of America.” When Joseph arrived from Lithuania, he gave his very first sermon there. The congregation was “renovated to fit the occasion,” Landau wrote.
Joseph’s arrival from Europe was much heralded. “Some hoped that he would clean up the kashrus scene,” Landau wrote, “while others wanted more intense yeshivos for their children. Yet a third category hoped the Rav would focus on building Yiddishkeit in general, and refrain from pointing out their failings.”
The plan of the Orthodox leaders who brought Joseph to America was to put a tax on kosher butchers who would seek his approval. “They thought the tax would pay his salary,” Sarna said in an interview. “It was a fine theory, but they forgot the competition. Many butchers sought out other rabbinic authorities. The whole economic scheme collapsed.”
As a result, the tax didn’t work, they were unable to get the kosher butchers under one authority, they had trouble paying the rabbi and “the poor man had a stroke,” Sarna said. He was incapacitated in 1897 and lived out the last years of his life in poverty. He died in 1902 at the age of 62.
There was a great outpouring of grief (some say guilt) upon Joseph’s death. Tens of thousands attended his funeral through the streets of the Lower East Side. In his book on American Judaism, Sarna notes that “even his massive funeral in 1902 ended in tragedy.” The procession that accompanied his casket was pelted by Irish and German workers, some of whom had been taunting local Jewish immigrants for years. “A riot ensued,” Sarna adds, “abetted by the police, in which many Jews were brutally beaten.”
The casket finally made its way to the Beth HaMedrah synagogue on Norfolk Street, Landau records. From there his body was taken by ferry to Queens where New York’s first and last chief rabbi was buried at Union Field Cemetery in Ridgewood.
In the year of his death, a yeshiva on Henry Street was renamed for him. “He had nothing to do with the school,” said Marvin Schick, who has been president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School for 45 years. “There was a sense that he had been mistreated. Many felt guilt about him. The school was made a memorial to his name.”
Over the years, many have speculated on what might have been if Joseph had succeeded. If he had been a stronger leader, would the institution of chief rabbi have taken root in America the way that it did in the United Kingdom?
The consensus among historians is that Joseph was the wrong person for the job, but it is unlikely that anyone could have flourished in the position. No chief rabbi could succeed in America, with its strong separation of church and state. In Europe religion and state are much more intertwined. What’s more, the American spirit is one of independence, not of joining.
But Joseph’s failure helped contribute to what Schick calls “the Shteibelization of America.” “There are a huge number of synagogues and each constitutes a universe unto itself. This is not what exists in the great cities of Europe, which invariably have a chief rabbi. Here, as the Yiddish expression goes, ‘everyone makes Shabbes for himself.’”
With the yeshiva that bears his name now on Staten Island and with the Beth HaMedrash destroyed by the recent fire, there is still one reminder of the rabbi on the Lower East Side. On Henry Street, where he once lived, stands the Jacob Joseph Playground. It is named not for the chief rabbi but for his great-grandson, Captain Jacob Joseph, who died in action at Guadalcanal in 1942 at the age of 22. A bronze plaque there notes his service and sacrifice. ■
Ari L. Goldman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is an editorial consultant for CONTACT. He is the author of four books, including The Search for God at Harvard and The Late Starters Orchestra.
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